The top 10%

Landing in the top 10% is a fairly attainable goal for upwardly mobile Americans. A study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), found that the average earnings of those in the top 10% were roughly $173,000 in 2020.

As the numbers reflect the household’s top wage earner, you’re looking at quite a jump from Americans in the first 90%, who according to the EPI earned an average of $40,000 in 2020.

There’s also a significant jump between the bottom and the top of 10% earners. Those in the bottom half made about $133,500 in 2020, where those in the top half pulled in $223,000.

There is another side to this, though. Studies also show that while it may take less to fall into a top percent bracket, wage gaps overall are only getting worse, especially as they fail to keep up with inflation — making advancing your family’s status less attainable for middle-class hopefuls these days.

More: What's the take-home pay on a $100,000 salary?

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From the top 5% to the top 1%

Salaries start to jump significantly the closer you get to the top 1%. You’ll start to see dramatic shifts in the top 5%, where the EPI found the average earners significantly increased to $343,000 in 2020, up from $324,000 the year before.

While that’s certainly a lot, there’s a growing trend of even more cash flowing to — flooding even — those at the top of the heap.

What about, say, the top 1%?

Their wages jumped an astounding 20% between 2009 and 2019, and they pulled down $824,000 in 2020, up 7% from the previous year. That well beat out inflation over the same period, which clocked in at 1.4%.

Bear in mind that cost-of-living numbers mean the top 5% and 1% pan out differently depending on where you hang your silk hat. According to a 2022 study by SmartAsset, the top 1% in Connecticut makes about $896,490, whereas in Tennessee you’d only need around half that much ($492,583).

Where does this leave the average American?

Pew Research Center statistics show that for middle-class Americans, average incomes jumped from $74,000 in 2010 to about $78,500 in 2016. Today, that figure sits at $90,000.

And sadly, that larger number doesn’t have as much buying power as the 2010 figure did at the time.

Because here’s the kicker: While salaries may have headed up, so has inflation. So even if you’re an American making the average wage, it’s quite likely you’re feeling the pressure to pinch pennies.

There’s one metric, though, where top percentages of another sort are attainable for all: that is, how your income stacks up against job satisfaction and happiness at home.

Sure, it won’t necessarily buy you a yacht (or even a rowboat). But finding a way to balance the two is likely a more direct path to "true" wealth.

More: How to ask for a raise

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About the Author

Amy Legate-Wolfe

Amy Legate-Wolfe

Freelance contributor

Amy Legate-Wolfe is an investment junkie, who aims to help others get hooked by providing well-researched advice. After receiving a masters in journalism from Western University, Amy worked for Huff Post and CTVNews.ca, while freelancing for organizations such as the CBC, Motley Fool Canada and Financial Post. Amy Legate-Wolfe is an experienced personal finance writer and freelance contributor working with MoneyWise.com.

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